Welcome to the Big House, Fish. Whether you’re trapped in a prison of your own design, just ran out of new episodes of Orange is The New Black, or regret trading your DVD of The Shawshank Redemption for a Spider-Man statue carved out of a bar of soap, you’re itching for some fresh prison fiction, and we’ve got your hookup, boss. We flipped the bunks, checked behind every poster and punched the biggest, strongest individual we could find right in the face to bring you 15 of the most primo prison stories that take place in comics.
What would a prison listicle be without rules? The comics in question had to primarily take place in a physical prison or correctional facility of some sort, so penal colonies, jails, asylums for the criminally insane, giant pits in the ground, plastic Magneto-cages, Face/Off style magnet prisons and POW camps all qualify. Metaphorical prisons, however, like depression, Groundhog Day-style time loops, Room-esque rooms, or terrible marriages are not the kind of prisons we’re focusing on. Entries are ranked primarily on the quality of the prison society, creativity of the correctional facility housing the story and relative “dope-levels” of the prison colloquialisms utilized.
15. BATMAN: CAGES
Found in Batman Annual #2 by Scott Snyder, Marguerite Bennett and West Craig, “Cages” starts off on a great premise: Batman is Arkham Asylum’s newest resident, testing out the new security measures of the Tartarus Wing by breaking out of it. Every step of the way, Batman explains how a particular rogue would overcome each obstacle: Can’t have human guards because Two-Face could intimidate them. Pressure plates work well, provided you’re not a flyer like Man-Bat. Batman simultaneously celebrates his villains, while also suggesting that maybe he should be in Arkham.
Unfortunately, Batman’s test-run is interrupted by the new villainess, The Anchoress. Arkham’s first inmate, Anchoress can phase through walls and the mind, throwing Batman through a mental prison of watching his parents die, again. Listen lady, if we’re tired of watching Batman’s parents get shot, then it’s definitely just white noise to Batman by now.
Kaijumax (2015) by Zander Cannon is a prison comic where all the convicts just happen to be gigantic monsters. We follow the fresh fish-monster Electrogor, a giant electric bug-thing, as he learns the dynamics of Gen-Pop: Cells are craters, shanks are made out of freight liner hulls, and cavity searches require hazmat suits and spelunking. Gangs are split up by species: there’s the cryptozoological Cyptids, the Hiroshima-based Maketo Gang, and the saurian Lizzas, not to be confused with Tin-Lizzas which are comprised of giant robots. Overlooking K-Max is Warden Kang and his human (“squisher”) guards, who have access to Ultra-Man powers.
The Kaiju motif runs deep: “Megafauna” and “‘Zookie-ass ‘Zilla” are some of the finest insults you can utilize. Finally, the narcotics of choice are uranium (weapons grade, none of that depleted crap,) smoke stacks, engine turbines and virgin princesses.
13. THE PUNISHER: BORDER CROSSING
Black Widow has double crossed Frank Castle, sticking him in a Costa Rican prison in”The Punisher: Border Crossing” by Nathan Edmondson and Mitch Gerads. Punisher introduces himself to the Costa Rican felon community by promptly starting a fight with the boss of the biggest gang. As Frank predicts, the gang retaliates by sending a shank squad to Frank’s cell at night, giving the Punisher a convenient way out of his cell. Like clockwork, Frank knocks out one of the many corrupt correctional officers before opening every cell. Within 24 hours, The Punisher has orchestrated what has to be the most efficient prison riot, ever.
What’s super cool about “Border Crossing” is that several shots were faithfully recreated for the Daredevil Season 2 episode “7 Minutes in Heaven,” perhaps better known as “That episode with the dope Punisher prison fight scene.”
12. SUICIDE SQUAD: UP AGAINST THE WALL
To get more info on the Suicide Squad, Batman dons the double-disguise of Matches Malone to infiltrate Belle Reve in “Up Against The Wall” from Suicide Squad #10 (1988) by John Ostrander and Luke McDonnell. Matches breaks out of his cell and finds the Batsuit he conveniently sent ahead to the mailroom. Batman’s brutality matches the prison, as he takes down Duchess by force-feeding her a gas-pellet, goes toe-to-toe with Rick Flagg, and reveals that Deadshot has been purposefully missing whenever they throw down.
What’s most impressive is that Amanda Waller actually gets Batman to back down. In addition to blowing his Matches Malone alias, Batman never wore gloves, so Waller now knows Batman’s secret identity thanks to the fingerprints he left in his cell. Batman just walks out, marking this event as one of the few times he didn’t plan for everything.
11. THE SUPERIOR SPIDER-MAN: NO ESCAPE
The final act of The Raft is to execute Alistair Smythe, The Spider-Slayer, in The Superior Spider-Man #11-13 by Dan Slott, Christos Gage and Giuseppe Camuncoli. Since Smythe had slain Mayor J. Jonah Jameson’s wife, Jameson oversees the execution, granting Spider-Man — controlled by Doctor Octopus — lethal authority. Smythe attempts to escape by hooking up Scorpion, Boomerang and Vulture with some contraband power armor. This ain’t Spider-Octopus’ first prison rodeo though, as he installed a counter measure for nearly every step of Smythe’s jailbreak, culminating in shanking Smythe with his own tentacle.
The grand stroke of Smythe’s masterplan is to switch bodies with Spider-Man by means of brain-tentacle-shiv — the exact same plan Otto already successfully pulled off. Spider-Ock also prepared for this, countering the move with an armor-lined mask, which really seems like something Peter should’ve incorporated years ago.
10. STAR WARS: REBEL JAIL
Dr. Aphra, Darth Vader’s top meatbag minion, is escorted by Princess Leia and Sana Starros to Sunspot Prison, the Rebel Alliance’s black site containment facility for high-value prisoners in “Star Wars: Rebel Jail” by Jason Aaron and Leinil Francis Yu. As Aphra is transported to her cell, a rogue agent wearing the dopest non-Mandalorian helmet launches a zero-gravity assault to take control of the facility. So, basically Half Past Dead, but with War Droids instead of Ja Rule.
When this masked interloper begins executing prisoners, Leia demonstrates what separates the Rebel Alliance from The Galactic Empire, trying to save space-murderers who are actively trying to kill her. Mind you, Imperial Prisons are basically torture droids and waiting to get choked by Vader, so just having a prison facility is fairly chill. Oh! We also learn what a nerf is! It’s like, a space yak, just FYI.
9. ARKHAM ASYLUM: A SERIOUS HOUSE ON SERIOUS EARTH
On April Fool’s Day, Joker invites Batman to Arkham Asylum for a game of hide and seek. As Batman moves through the asylum floors, we move through Arkham’s history, learning of Amadeus Arkham’s descent into madness and shamanistic cannibalism.
Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth (1989) by Grant Morrison and Dave McKean was written as a critique to more “literal” comics like The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen, represented through a dream-like, grotesquely beautiful hallucinogenic trip cut with dense symbolism and Crowley cameos. After providing an outline of David Bohm’s theory of an interconnecting universe applied to pedophilia, The Mad Hatter “explains” the book, for what good it will do: “Sometimes… Sometimes I think the asylum is a head. We’re inside a huge head that dreams us all into being. Perhaps it’s your head, Batman. Arkham is a looking glass. And we are you.”
8. NEW AVENGERS: BREAKOUT
“New Avengers: Breakout” by Brian Michael Bendis introduces The Raft, a super-powered extension of Ryker’s Island that almost immediately experiences a jailbreak courtesy of Electro. Fortunately, Spider-Woman happened to be giving Luke Cage and Matt Murdock a tour of the facility just as Spider-Man comes across a gaggle of old villains wearing orange. Also, Captain America is just there.
“Breakout” is just one fun riot that springboards New Avengers. Sure, 42 prisoners escape, but 45 are recaptured, most likely because they were preoccupied with mobbing Spider-Man, snapping his arm and ripping off his mask. You also get Kilgrave (feels weird saying “Purple Man”) trying to mind control Luke Cage, only to get a whooping in return, while Carnage gets ripped in two in space. Carnage survives, but he later gets robot legs, so he’s whatever about it.
7. GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY: WAR OF KINGS
Star-Lord and a bunch of D-list villains have to defend 42, Tony Stark’s horrible Negative Zone prison against Blastaar and the Annihilation Wave in “Guardians of The Galaxy: War of Kings” by Dan Abnett, Andy Lanning, Brad Walker and Carlos Magno. What starts as a mash-up of Assault on Precinct 13 and The Battle of Helms Deep devolves into hilarity. Gorilla-Man, who is a man head on a gorilla body, believes Star-Lord is the dumbest name ever, and therefore must be a spy.
Mantis receives a psychic distress signal of pain from the prison’s resident telepath Carrion, because Star-Lord (correctly) assumed that beating a telepath harder makes for a stronger psychic message. Our favorite moment, however, is Skeleton Ki immediately betraying his fellow convicts to open the doors for Blastaar, who considers a poignant pat on the face to be a suitable reward.
6. ARKHAM ASYLUM: LIVING HELL
Billionaire playboy and white collar criminal Warren White has been sent to Arkham Asylum in Arkham Asylum: Living Hell (2003) by Dan Slott and Ryan Sook, answering the question: What if Arkham Asylum: A Serious House On Serious Earth didn’t take itself so seriously?
When not focusing on White dropping the soap while sharing the showers with the Joker, we are treated to vignettes of each aspect of Arkham. Here are some highlights: White asks The Riddler if the question mark represents his sexual identity. Stuck in twin hand casts, Two-Face hires White as his official coin-flipper. Killer Croc breaks out of solitary to give the New Fish a fresh set of gills. White’s cellmate uses his ghost vision to see Aaron Cash flip him off with his phantom middle finger.
5. PUNISHER MAX: FRANK
An injured Punisher finds himself behind bars, with every inmate wanting to tear off a piece of Frank Castle for themselves in “PunisherMAX: Frank“ (2011) by Jason Aaron and Steve Dillon. Frank has thrived in prison before, but this is an older Punisher. Frank is marched on display throughout every cellblock until he collapses, shattering the myth of The Punisher as Frank questions if he can keep fighting.
Fortunately, in solitary confinement, Punisher finds Jesus. Gang leader “The Big Jesus” initiates a riot with a shard of glass hidden under his fingernail, trying to get Frank to remember who he really is. When a grenade is thrown into Frank’s cell, he suddenly remembers asking Maria for a divorce just seconds before he lost his family to random violence. Frank had everything, yet threw it all away. Frank cannot die yet — he deserves a lifetime of punishment.
4. THUNDERBOLTS: CAGED
Luke Cage, the former convict turned Hero for Hire, leads The Thunderbolts Program in Thunderbolts (2013) by Jeff Parker and Kev Walker. Convicts can knock some time off their sentence by joining The Thunderbolts, going on missions with a high risk of mortality — basically Marvel’s version of Suicide Squad. Luke balances his Thunderbolts accordingly, recruiting Songbird and Ghost for stealth, Moonstone for drama, Juggernaut for tanking, Crossbones for literally filling the douche quota, and Man-Thing for general teleporting/brooding.
Off mission, the Thunderbolts are held on The Raft, providing us with plenty of prison drama: Warden U.S. Agent gets into a prison riot fight scene with only one arm and leg, Luke Cage shuts a cell to throw down with “Killgrave,” Ghost worgs into Mach V, and Moonstone calls Juggernaut a Juggalo, demonstrating why she’s essential for every super-team.
3. 100 BULLETS: CHILL IN THE OVEN
Fresh out of the SHU, potential Minuteman recruit Loop must compensate for his lack of physique with his knowledge of prison politics to mastermind himself out of three proverbial tiger cages and survive Gen-Pop in 100 Bullets #43-46 by Brian Azzarello and Eduardo Risso. Behind Door One is Nine Train, the hulking convict with a broken trachea — courtesy of Loop — recovering in the ICU. Behind door number two is psycho CO Dirtz looking to put Loop down for good. Behind the final door lies the ferocious Lono, the wildcard mercenary who already sent the Neo-Nazi Erie to the infirmary, removing Loop’s white-power knight from the board.
Azzarello provides a crash course in authentic prison society featuring a bevy of shiv types and nomenclature, sometimes requiring multiple re-reads just to decipher. In retrospect, this sorta explains why everyone punctuates their sentences with “knowhumsayin’,” you knowhumsayin’?
2. BITCH PLANET
Bitch Planet by Kelly Sue DeConnick and Valentine De Landro is a Sci-Fi Feminist twist on Caged Heat that hits nearly every prison trope, including one chapter that is literally called the “Obligatory lesbian shower scene.” Women who have been deemed “Non Compliant” are shipped off to the Auxiliary Compliance Outpost, a penal colony colloquially known as Bitch Planet. Mind you, it doesn’t take much to be deemed “Non Compliant,” as both “wanton obesity” and “criminal literacy” are considered crimes.
Our protagonist Kamau Kogo has been tasked with assembling the first ever female felon squad for Megaton, humanity’s most popular bloodsport. This is a fully fleshed out prison planet, including holodeck interrogation rooms and mirrors that reflects your ideal self. Our favorite feature, however, may just be the hyper-misogynistic advertisements on the back of every issue: “When they play MARRY/****/KILL, you’ll never be KILL again!”
1. THE DEVIL IN CELL-BLOCK D
Matt Murdock is transferred into Ryker’s Gen-Pop, where every con knows he’s totally Daredevil in “The Devil in Cell-Block D” by Ed Brubaker, Michael Lark and Stefano Gaudiano from Daredevil #83-87 (2006). The Kingpin is the big boss of the cellblock, killing four would-be shower assassins with his bare hands, but the prison falls silent when Bullseye arrives. Matt stops laying low and dons a makeshift red mask, promptly filling up the infirmary after the shivving of one Foggy Nelson.
This story is so good that The Punisher gets intentionally incarcerated just to watch Matt go crazy, again. Incidentally, Punisher is totally fine in prison — Ryker’s is like Sandals to him. Anyway, things pop off when a riot starts. Matt is forced to team up with Kingpin and Bullseye, who interrupts a playing card killing spree to get into a shotgun duel with Matt.
Did we forget your favorite prison story? Should we have included the prison saga from Saga? That one time Super-Girl went to space-jail? Let us know what you think in the comments!
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